Unlikely eco-warriors

Supervisors fight for environmental health on several fronts

The members of the Butte County Board of Supervisors, hardly environmentalists (with the exception of Maureen Kirk), responded to necessity at their meeting Tuesday (Sept. 13) and took several actions designed to protect the land, trees and water. Here’s a rundown:

Our dying trees: Up and down the Sierra, trees are dying by the millions as a result of the drought and an infestation of bark beetles, greatly increasing the danger of fire. The situation isn’t as bad in Butte County as in several San Joaquin Valley counties. However, as Sang Kim, deputy county administrator, told the board, the beetle is definitely here.

In response, the county has formed a Tree Mortality Task Force made up of folks from public, private, nonprofit and government agencies. Its job is to monitor tree mortality in the county, identify trees that pose a threat to people, roads and bridges, and identify available informational resources.

One solution would be simply to remove the dead trees, but there are just too many of them. Supervisor Doug Teeter, whose District 5 includes Paradise and Magalia, noted that the Ridge has the highest concentration in the state of people living among the pines. Why not identify and remove the infested trees before the beetles take over? he asked.

It was clear, however, that for as long as the drought continues, the bark beetle will continue to spread, and there’s little anyone can do about it. Landowners with pine trees need to educate themselves. (The website readyforwildfire.org is a good place to start.)

Train to disaster? County supervisors, who like many residents are concerned about the Union Pacific trains carrying Bakken and other crude oil through the twisty and geologically unstable Feather River Canyon, unanimously voted to send a letter to the Federal Railroad Administration outlining their concerns.

The letter notes that the river drains into Lake Oroville, which provides water for more than 25 million Californians. A major oil spill would be catastrophic. In recent years there have been several derailments in the canyon, including of diesel fuel, though nothing environmentally devastating. But it’s just a matter of time, the letter suggests.

The county is requesting, first, that the Department of Transportation seek out an alternate route. In the meantime, it wants notification of laws to be enforced, the number of cars per trip limited to 15, and the use of DOT 117 cars instead of antiquated tankers. Maximum speed limit should be reduced, and Union Pacific should work with the county “to provide adequate emergency response supplies located so as to facilitate immediate response to release or threatened release.”

Hands off our water! Once again, Butte County has expressed its intense opposition to what is now being called the California WaterFix. That’s the plan to construct two huge underground tunnels to transport Northern California water south, bypassing the Delta.

Based on a similar letter sent last year, this missive to the State Water Resources Control Board reiterates the supervisors’ conviction that approval of the WaterFix “would lead to actions that will ultimately damage the region’s economy, environment and communities.”

Among other things, the WaterFix disregards area-of-origin rights and “calls for extracting more water from the northern Sacramento Valley,” the letter reads. “[It] will deplete and, in some instances, draw down upstream reservoirs to dead pool conditions.”

The board voted unanimously to send the letter.

Pooped out: What to do with all that sewage? That was perhaps the most nettlesome question the board faced all day. Here’s why:

The Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility, which receives 80 percent of the septage generated in the county, is running out of room. Officials there want to place a fifth solid-waste cell where the septage ponds are now located—thus the question.

Staff came up with three options. The first, and preferred, was to build a transfer station on site that would upload the waste into much larger trucks that then would take it to a disposal site in Lincoln. Cost: up to $1 million.

A second option was to take it to Chico’s Water Pollution Control Plant, but officials there were unwilling to accept the waste, saying it was too strong for their system. A mini-treatment plant to partially clean the septage would cost as much as $3 million, and even then it might not meet the city’s standards.

Another option was simply to stop offering the septage collection service, something none of the supervisors wanted to do.

“Why not just buy more land?” Supervisor Steve Lambert asked. Bill Mannel, the county waste facility’s manager, replied that the neighboring landowner didn’t want to sell. Noting how much the other options cost, Lambert hinted—without saying the words—that perhaps the county could use eminent domain. Board Chairman Bill Connelly also seemed to think that was a viable option, though he didn’t use the terminology either.

The board approved Option 1 unanimously, while calling on staff to continue working to buy more land.